Restorative justice: Program puts youthful offenders in hands of community
WILLMAR -- When it comes to juveniles committing crimes, what goes around comes around.
The same can be true when it comes to justice that's handed out by a circle of community members who are volunteers in a restorative justice program.
Teresa Menk of Canby said she's thankful for what came around to her teenaged son.
For 18 months the youth participated in the Yellow Medicine County circle-sentencing group, meeting twice a month with volunteers who kept him on the right track to turn his life around.
Meeting with the group and being held to its high standards was the boy's sentence for a felony property damage crime he had committed.
Circle sentencing is a court-approved option for some juvenile offenders, an alternative to the traditional route through the system that often involves a quick session in court, probation and sometimes time spent at detention facility.
Circle sentencing focuses on restoring justice between offenders and the victims they harmed and the community.
Because Menk's son successfully completed the circle-sentencing program -- starting at age 14 and finishing at age 16 -- his felony crime was reduced to a misdemeanor. More importantly, her son's life has been restored, said Menk.
If he hadn't met the goals the circle volunteers set for him, he would have been returned to the court to face the judge again for a new sentence.
There are currently circle sentencing groups in Kandiyohi and Yellow Medicine counties. Efforts are under way to find more volunteers to expand those programs and begin new circles in Meeker and Renville counties, said Kenny Turck, coordinator for the circle-sentencing program in the region.
Volunteers bring their heart and soul and their own perspective on life to the circle, he said.
Without the "realness of the volunteers," the program wouldn't happen and kids' lives wouldn't be positively changed, said Turck.
The "magic" of circle sentencing works because volunteers bring "real stuff and real life" to the circle "and they get real results," said Turck.
Menk said the circle-sentencing process made her son "really stop and think what he did and who he hurt."
She said the circle members "would shake their fingers" at her son when he didn't follow the rules. "They were tough on him," she said, but they provided the necessary support that helped turn her son around.
The boy who started the process slouching in his chair with an "attitude" ended the program "holding his head high," said Menk.
Boyd Beccue, Kandiyohi County attorney, said circle sentencing is "very intensive because it forces the juvenile, essentially, to confront their behavior in the community, with the community."
By far, he said, choosing to go through circle sentencing is a lot tougher for juvenile offenders than the conventional juvenile justice system.
"It's a heavy time commitment, but it's worthwhile," said Beccue.
For Menk, the time commitment meant a 90-mile round trip with her son from Canby to Granite Falls twice a month for sessions that lasted three or four hours.
That commitment, she said, doesn't compare to the commitment of time, energy, faith and trust that the community volunteers invested in her son during the past year and a half.
Menk said she is now going to become a volunteer in a circle-sentencing group. Menk said it "made me feel good that the community did this much good with my son.
"The feeling you get out of helping a child to grow is wonderful and more people should get involved," she said.
The program is used conservatively in Kandiyohi County. About a dozen kids have gone through circle sentencing since it was started about five years ago.
Don't look at the raw numbers, said Beccue. "Look at them as lives being changed for the better by circle."
In Yellow Medicine County, some of the "hardest cases that we have" in juvenile crime are referred to circle sentencing, said Amanda Sieling, Yellow Medicine County assistant attorney.
There, six new cases were referred to the circle in the past month alone.
For taxpayers, using the circle of volunteers is a bargain with benefits. Sieling said it can cost counties as much as $200 a day to house a juvenile offender in an out-of-home facility. Some kids are placed in facilities for only a few days -- others are there for years resulting in a huge cost to taxpayers.
The only cost for circle sentencing is for the coordinator position.
Besides the financial benefits, Sieling said kids are given a hard look at how their actions affected others. In the process they develop a renewed relationship with their community.
"Kids who are invested in their community don't commit crimes in their community," said Sieling.
While calling circle sentencing a "holistic" approach to restoring justice, Sieling said it's not a "namby-pamby, touchy-feely program" that lets kids off easy. She said she thinks the volunteers "are a lot harder" on the kids than the court system would be.
For juvenile offenders to really change, they need "more time and attention" than the "precious few minutes" that the court system can give them, said Judge Donald Spilseth of Willmar.
The community circle can give juvenile offenders the time and attention of a number of people, and they hold offenders accountable for their actions and monitor their activities.
The volunteers "demonstrate that people care," Spilseth said.
Spilseth and Beccue were on the ground floor of getting the program established and take pride in having it as an option within the juvenile justice system.
The "wisdom of the circle" can benefit many kids who can make the commitment to stay with the program. "They have to want to come" and they have to be prepared to work, Spilseth said. Circle sentencing is "not an easy way out" for kids."
It would be "a sad day" if there were not enough volunteers or grant money available to keep a program going "that has helped many people", said Spilseth.